Bronchiolitis obliterans, once viewed a problem unique to the microwave popcorn and flavoring industries, is quickly expanding to become a widespread phenomena in many workplaces. Researchers continue to expand the list of industries impacted by bronchiolitis obliterans while at the same time loosening the diagnostic requirements for this serious disease. As a result, manufacturers should be prepared to face litigation arising from claims of bronchiolitis obliterans.
Bronchiolitis obliterans is a serious and irreversible respiratory condition that can be caused by exposure to toxic substances. This condition occurs when the bronchioles in the lungs are compressed and narrowed by scar tissue and/or inflammation causing extreme shortness of breath. In severe cases, bronchiolitis obliterans can be deadly or necessitate a lung transplant. However, researchers continue to stretch the definition of bronchiolitis obliterans to cover patients with less severe symptoms. What was once traditionally viewed as a disease connected with exposure to toxic gas is morphing to encompass those who pop a few too many bags of popcorn in their home.
The chemical diacetyl is most commonly associated in the news with bronchiolitis obliterans. Diacetyl is commonly used in food and beverages to provide a butter flavor. The chemical is an ingredient in snacks, beverages, baked goods, and a variety of other edibles. Diacetyl exposure related to butter flavoring has spawned hundreds of lawsuits by plant workers and now consumers. The widespread use of diacetyl in the food industry and the chemical’s association with bronchiolitis obliterans has led some commentators to suggest that diacetyl could be the “new asbestos.”
In the wake of litigation and controversy, some manufacturers have removed diacetyl from their products. However, the respiratory safety of the chemicals used as substitutes has been called into question. Some researchers believe that the butter flavoring chemical pentanedione could also cause bronchiolitis obliterans.
But diacetyl and other butter flavors are not the only chemicals associated with bronchiolitis obliterans. Some now allege that the widely used chemical styrene can cause bronchiolitis obliterans. Researchers identified bronchiolitis obliterans in six boat builders who worked preparing fiberglass with styrene resins. Doctors also diagnosed a man with bronchiolitis obliterans resulting from brief exposure to smoke from burning polystyrene home insulation. Both styrene resin and polystyrene are widely used in industry. Styrene resin is used in boats, industrial tanks, countertops, bathtubs, and construction materials. Polystyrene is used to make products such as foam cups, insulation, and packaging material.
The National Institute of Health’s website identifies a number of other chemicals that could cause bronchiolitis obliterans, including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen fluoride, phosgene, hydrogen bromide, hydrogen chloride, methyl isocyanate, and hydrogen sulfide.
With extensive numbers of researchers and plaintiffs’ lawyers focused on bronchiolitis obliterans, it is certain that this serious disease will continue to present a risk to employers and manufacturers across numerous industries.© 2013 Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. All rights reserved.